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On the failure of the Russian and Soviet “Hegemonic Projects”

Around 170 years ago the Crimean War put an end to almost forty years of Russian supremacy in Europe. Other Russian and Soviet hegemonic projects were also to fail several times in the 20th century. Despite this, the current Russian leadership is once again advocating for the creation of such a project. Does this aspiration of the Putin team to restore the country’s powerful position have any chance of succeeding?

February 5, 2024 - Leonid Luks - Articles and Commentary

Fence decorations featuring the double-headed eagle in St. Petersburg. Photo: Alexander A. Trofimov / Shutterstock

The situation in Europe immediately after the Second World War recalled the one following the defeat of Napoleon. Russia, or rather the USSR, became once again the strongest European power, as it had been after 1815, and was perceived as a potential world conqueror. Many Europeans now admired the farsightedness of such thinkers as Alexis de Tocqueville, Juan Donoso Cortès and Astolphe de Custine, who around the middle of the 19th century had predicted Russia’s great and threatening future for the West.

The fact that some of these predictions were based on false premises was usually overlooked. For example, the belief of Tocqueville, Donoso Cortès and other thinkers in the future importance of Russia was rooted in their deep conviction that the West was incurably decadent and no longer had the strength for renewal. These authors confused the decline of aristocratic Europe with an overall crisis of the West as such. Their predictions practically skipped a century, making no mention of the second industrial revolution or the rapid urbanization and modernization of the western part of the continent. These processes seemed to be pushing the West in a completely different direction than the pessimistic thinkers of the mid-19th century had predicted.

Nevertheless, a hundred years later, the West was to find itself back in a situation that was seemingly identical to that which it had already found itself in around the middle of the 19th century. This entire century was now seen by many authors as merely a kind of detour, in which Europe could basically only temporarily escape its seemingly inevitable fate, and this fate was called the Russian or Soviet threat. There is no need to prove today that this view underestimated the developmental possibilities of the West and overestimated those of Russia and the USSR. So, what is the reason for this distorted perception of East-West relations? I will first address this question using the example of the Russian “hegemonic project” in the period between the Congress of Vienna and the Crimean War.

British fears

In Great Britain, which was very sensitive to questions of European security, the shift in the balance of power in favour of Russia after the defeat of Napoleon caused great concern. In 1815, the English newspaper The Eclectic Review wrote that the Russian Empire exceeded all the empires the world that had ever been seen in terms of its size. This enormous territorial expansion of the tsarist empire was seen as an unparalleled challenge.

However, London’s fears were not shared by many other European governments in the immediate aftermath of Napoleon’s defeat. The fear of a resurgence of revolution was still very widespread across the continent at the time. And so, some European cabinets regarded Russia, with its conservative system of rule, as one of the most important guarantors of the post-revolutionary order. The Holy Alliance, which was formed on September 26th 1815 with the aim of preserving the old order against revolutionary challenges, regarded Russia as its most important pillar. Not least for this reason, European liberals and democrats declared the tsarist empire to be their main opponent. The attitude of European conservatives towards Russia, on the other hand, was rather positive until around the middle of the century, with a few exceptions.

The extensive isolation of Russia in the liberal European public sphere initially had no direct political consequences. Journalistic battles of words were not supported by corresponding actions on the part of the governments. The alliance of the three conservative courts (St Petersburg, Vienna and Berlin) remained relatively intact until 1848. This was despite some disagreements due to the common fear of revolution. Russia’s supremacy, at least in Central and Eastern Europe, seemed unchallenged. St Petersburg was also convinced of the certainty of its power. In 1850, the Russian Foreign Minister Karl Robert von Nesselrode said that “The Russian position of power had never been as strong after 1814 as it was now.” However, the real situation at that time was already quite different, not least because of the processes that the revolutions of 1848 were to initiate.

The genesis of the Crimean War

Despite their failure, the European revolutions of 1848-49 created a completely new political climate in Europe. This necessitated a completely new style of government. The events of 1848-49 led to an extraordinary politicization of the masses. From then on, governing without regard for public opinion was almost impossible, despite all the attempts at a conservative restoration. The post-revolutionary governments, including the dictatorships, endeavoured to pursue a “popular” policy. The fact that the tsarist empire was extremely unpopular with the European public was now to have far more dangerous consequences for the Eastern hegemonic power than had been the case before the revolution. Apart from this, European governments, like western societies, now wanted to leave all the remnants of the old order behind, an order of which Russia seemed to be the most important guarantor.

Many representatives of the Prussian and Austrian ruling classes considered it humiliating that the tsar sometimes acted as if their rulers were merely his governors. They wanted to free themselves as quickly as possible from the overpowering shadow of the giant empire to the East. In Berlin, they found it extremely irritating that the tsar was constantly interfering in domestic German affairs. This was made clear with the “Olmützer Punctation” of November 1850. The views of the Prussian conservatives gathered around the Gerlach brothers, who spoke of the legitimist solidarity of the conservative powers, seemed already anachronistic by the beginning of the 1850s. The Austrian Foreign Minister Karl Ferdinand von Buol considered the belief of conservative generals such as Alfred Windischgrätz that Austria was indebted to Russia for its help in suppressing the Hungarian Revolution in 1849 to be similarly anachronistic. The tsar was still of the opinion that only the European public and not the governments saw him as a tyrant. He therefore felt relatively secure when, at the beginning of 1853, he started to resolve the “Eastern Question” concerning the fate of the Ottoman Empire in his own way. However, this approach provoked the unexpected effect of solidarity among most of the important European governments and peoples. Almost all of them regarded the tsarist empire as a threat to European civilization.

After the outbreak of the Crimean War, it soon became clear that Western Europeans’ fears of Russian superiority had been greatly exaggerated. Between the Napoleonic Wars and the Second World War, no other war to restore the balance of power in Europe had gone as smoothly. The opponents of the hegemonic power succeeded in defeating it with only a fraction of their forces, and without the total mobilization of their potential strength.

The emergence and collapse of the “external” Soviet empire

It was not until 1945 – after the victory of the anti-Hitler coalition over the Third Reich – that the predictions of Tocqueville and other European pessimists were remembered. The internally divided West, full of social and political tensions, now seemed once again inferior to the dictatorial and monolithic Russian/Soviet colossus. The thesis of the West’s withering vitality and Russia’s thriving strength seemed relevant again. Once again, as in 1815, there was talk of the “omnipotence” of Russia and the USSR. This was even more so as the Moscow leadership did not have too many problems controlling its new sphere of influence, which now extended as far as the Elbe river. The history of the western periphery of the Eastern Bloc, which emerged in 1945, was by no means a chain of revolts, as it is sometimes portrayed, not least under the impression of the revolutionary year of 1989. On the contrary, revolts tended to be episodes. What prevailed, however, was a tremendous urge to conform, which critics of the regimes in Czechoslovakia, the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and some other vassal states of Moscow had complained about for decades.

The fact that the Moscow leadership had succeeded in developing quite efficient control mechanisms in its newly acquired sphere of influence in 1944-45 is surprising when one considers what a vanishing minority the communists formed there in 1945, except in Czechoslovakia. In 1945, the American diplomat and Russia expert George F. Kennan, for example, had expressed the view that the USSR would hardly be able to cope with the expansion of its sphere of influence as far as the Elbe, and he also predicted the imminent collapse of its hegemony. As Russia and the Soviet empire had considerably exceeded their traditional sphere of influence in this part of Europe, Kennan’s prediction seemed entirely plausible. Before 1914, Poland was the only country in the region that had been under Russian control, and it took an extraordinary effort by the forces of the entire tsarist empire to repeatedly subdue the unruly province. In contrast, in the entire history of the Eastern Bloc (1945 to 1989) there was basically only one equivalent to this – the Hungarian uprising of 1956. The interventions in East Berlin and Czechoslovakia (1953 and 1968) went much more smoothly for Moscow. Only post-Yalta Poland – the weakest link of the “External Soviet empire” that emerged after 1945 – constantly undermined imperial power (1956, 1970 and 1980-81). Nevertheless, the Polish opposition was not able to overthrow the regime until 1989. The dissolution of the Eastern Bloc in 1989 was not primarily the result of pressure from below, but rather the consequence of a new foreign policy concept of the Soviet leadership. The Kremlin no longer considered it opportune to adhere to the Brezhnev Doctrine, which postulated that the Eastern Bloc states should have limited sovereignty.

Until the beginning of Gorbachev’s perestroika, the Soviet regime represented a calming influence for the dogmatists in Moscow’s Eastern European vassal states. They could always count on it when they were unable to overcome internal crises on their own, such as in East Berlin in 1953, Budapest in 1956 or Prague in 1968. Under Gorbachev, however, this pole of power began to move. It was this paradigm shift in Moscow’s policy towards its Eastern European junior partners that made the upheavals of 1989 possible. Gorbachev’s attempt to loosen the rigid bureaucratic structures of the communist states unsettled the ruling elites much more than the previous mass revolts or popular uprisings had done. After all, the struggle against the real or perceived enemies of the so-called “dictatorship of the proletariat” had been an everyday occurrence for Bolshevik-type parties since 1917. Part of the essence of Gorbachev’s “new thinking”, however, was to replace the “friend-enemy concept” with political discourse. The communist bureaucracy’s reaction in all countries of the Eastern Bloc was, to say the least, awkward. As soon as bureaucrats became involved in the free exchange of opinions, in which only the better arguments counted, their weaknesses and shortcomings came to light. Glasnost and perestroika were originally intended to enable the communist regimes to catch up with modernity and the economically and technologically advancing West. In fact, however, these processes led to the dissolution of the regimes of “real existing socialism”.

Why did the Soviet Union dissolve?

The fact that the countries of Central and Eastern Europe (such as Poland, the GDR, Czechoslovakia and Hungary) managed to abolish “real existing socialism” relatively peacefully seems somewhat understandable. These states liberated themselves from the regimes that the Soviet occupying power had imposed on them in 1945. The most important strategic reserves of these regimes were the tanks of this hegemonic power. Gorbachev’s renunciation of the Brezhnev Doctrine, however, deprived Moscow’s vassals of their most important foundation, as already mentioned, and so their regimes collapsed overnight. However, a similar development in Moscow was initially considered hardly conceivable in the East and West. After all, unlike in Eastern Europe, the communist regime in Russia had emerged as a result of a revolution along classical lines. It had grown much deeper roots than in Poland, Hungary or the GDR.

However, the Moscow communists suffered an almost identical fate to their Eastern European counterparts. They too lacked the will to hold on to power. The USSR also dissolved with virtually no bloodshed. Many advocates of imperial thinking in today’s Russia regard the meeting in Viskuli, Belarus on December 8th 1991, where the decision was made to dissolve the USSR, as an insidious plot by Moscow’s declared enemies, who wanted to destroy Russia as a great power on behalf of the West. The proponents of the Russian “stab-in-the-back” legend ignored the fact that the disempowerment of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) following the failed coup by communist dogmatists in August 1991 and the erosion of the idea of “proletarian internationalism” , which had been evident since the Brezhnev era, deprived the Soviet empire of its most important organizational and ideological anchor. Without this mainstay, it was difficult to maintain the existing state structures.

Putin’s “Hegemonic Project” and its weak points

Vladimir Putin, who in 2005 described the dissolution of the Soviet Union as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”, is trying to force a revision of the “verdict of history” made on December 8th 1991. Just like the Russian tsars or the Soviet leadership, Putin has his own hegemonic project. As was the case with Nicholas I or Stalin, Putin’s concept of hegemony is also linked to a declaration of love for the Russian nation. However, there is one difference. Although the national-conservative ideology formulated in the 1830s by the tsarist minister for education, Sergei Uvarov, with its three basic pillars (Orthodoxy, autocracy and nationhood) was decidedly Russocentric, the policies of the tsarist empire at the time also contained supranational components. These found expression above all in the legitimist idea of defending the old order in the face of revolutionary challenges. Not least for this reason, the tsarist empire was, as already described, quite popular in conservative circles in the West.

However, the Stalinist ideologues had certain misgivings about the glorification of the Russian nation. They were aware that the “Russian idea” was by no means sufficient to serve as the sole umbrella for the more than 100 peoples of the Soviet empire. The so-called “Russian idea” was also not particularly popular with the countless sympathizers of the USSR in the West or with the liberation movements in developing countries. They supported Moscow primarily because it was the centre of the “world revolution” and not because it propagated the universal significance of Russianness. To satisfy all these ideological constraints, the Soviet leaders had to preserve their “internationalist face” despite their tendency towards Russocentric thinking. However, such supranational elements are almost completely missing from Putin’s ideological construct. Despite Putin’s tentative attempts to court the favour of western populists or the countries of the “Global South”, his most important target group is the so-called “Russian world”. Only here does he believe he can find permanent and not just temporary allies. This in turn arouses the extraordinary fears of many post-Soviet states, whose territories are home to compact Russian minorities.

Moscow’s extremely aggressive and destructive Ukraine policy is a warning sign for them all. These fears are reflected particularly clearly in the example of Kazakhstan, which, along with Belarus, is one of Moscow’s most important allies in the so-called Eurasian Economic Union. Nationalistic-minded Russian politicians have repeatedly described the Kazakh state as a rather artificial entity, complaining of “Russophobic” tendencies in Kazakhstan. By radicalizing their anti-Kazakh rhetoric, Russian nationalists are walking into a trap of their own making. A confrontation between Moscow and Kazakhstan would inevitably lead to a renewed conflict between Moscow and China, which maintains very close relations with its Kazakh neighbour. Moscow’s foreign policy isolation would then be almost complete.

The heroic fight for freedom by the Ukrainians, which is being supported quite efficiently by many western states, is already causing the Putin regime almost insurmountable problems. If the Russian advocates of neo-imperial revenge were to direct their expansionist drive eastwards, such as towards Kazakhstan, they would finally manoeuvre their country into a dead end. This would once again confirm the verdict of Boris Nemtsov, the Russian regime critic murdered on February 27th 2015, who said back in April 2014 that Putin was merely a short-sighted tactician and not a strategist. However, in today’s Russia, danger lurks around every corner for anyone who dares to question the “wisdom” of the state’s leadership, as Nemtsov had done nine years ago. Only recently did the director of the renowned Moscow North American Institute, Valery Garbuzov, feel its effects when he wrote the following in the Moscow newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta on August 29th 2023:

“Today’s Russia … with its longing for a lost greatness is shaped by a post-imperial syndrome… It is striving, albeit so far unsuccessfully, for revenge. … However, it has not been able to transform itself into a real competitor of the US or China… The newly created state mythology will hardly help to achieve this goal.”

Shortly after this article was published, Garbuzov was forced to resign.

This is an expanded version of an article that appeared on September 21st 2023 in the German online magazine Die Kolumnisten.

Translated by Eva Schulz-Jander.

Leonid Luks is professor of history at the Catholic University Eichstaett-Ingolstadt, Bavaria, Germany.

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